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"A Vast City in the Air"
#MichArt: “Passenger Pigeons in Flight” by Lewis Luman Cross
“Not in the forests of North America or in any other part of the world is there now a single live passenger pigeon. In my boyhood… there were millions and millions. Their roosting place…made a vast city in the air.” —Ulysses Prentiss Hedrick (1870–1951), The Land of the Crooked Tree. (1)
A strange, Hitchcock-esque oil painting greets visitors in the lobby of Muskegon’s Lakeshore Museum Center. The large painting, depicting passenger pigeons flying over a field of partially harvested grain, is both discomforting to look at and difficult to look away from. In addition to its oddly jarring palette of yellows, oranges, pinks, and grays, several individual birds seem to fly straight at the viewer, veering from the direction of the main flock.
Viewers are drawn to the large canvas for a closer look, perhaps by the uneasy feeling that they have never seen—and likely never will see—a sky darkened by hundreds of thousands of wild birds.
The work, called “Passenger Pigeons in Flight” was painted by western Michigan farmer Lewis Luman Cross in 1937, twenty-three years after the last passenger pigeon died in captivity. Cross, born in 1863, was a teenager when passenger pigeons were hunted in numbers almost impossible to imagine throughout the Midwest.
Cross no doubt supplemented his family’s income or at least their larder by hunting pigeons himself. Writer Ulysses Prentiss Hedrick, who grew up on his family’s farm on Little Traverse Bay, describes the importance of the bird to early pioneers:
Spring…was always a time of scarcity of food, in which the whites were near starvation and the poor Indians were perishing from hunger. Pigeons came this spring as did manna to the Israelites. For six weeks before the young were of a size to eat, our whole population gorged themselves on the dark meat of old pigeons, eagerly waiting for the tender butterballs into which squabs quickly developed. (2)
Even with an estimated population of five billion birds at the time of the first European’s arrival in North America, it didn’t take long to exterminate the species once market hunting/trapping reached its peak. In 1878, near Petoskey, according to a report prepared by the Museum of Natural History:
50,000 birds per day were killed and this rate continued for nearly five months…The interests of civilization…were diametrically opposed to the interests of the birds, which needed the huge forests to survive… The converting of forests to farmland would have eventually doomed the passenger pigeon.” (3)
That the birds in Cross’ painting look vaguely threatening could be attributed to a farmer’s ambivalence toward the species: gigantic hungry flocks of pigeons wreaked havoc on crops when natural food sources were depleted. But it wouldn’t have taken an artist to appreciate the birds’ iridescent rainbow plumage and extremely graceful flight. Nor would it take an environmental activist to mourn the extirpation of the species. Interviews with the artist confirmed that Cross painted passenger pigeons to remind people of what had been lost. (4)
Throughout his life, Cross took his art seriously. He “began painting as a child. And, after experimenting with different media, decided that he preferred oils and to a lesser extent crayon and pencil.” (5)
He travelled from the family farm on Deremo Bayou (near Spring Lake) to Valparaiso, Indiana, in 1883–84 to study drawing and oil painting at Indiana Normal School (later Valparaiso University). In 1890, at age twenty-six, he exhibited work at the Detroit Institute of Art. His business card read “Landscape, marine, and portrait artist.” He also taught students in his studio as late as the 1940s. Throughout his lifetime he created nearly six hundred paintings.
“Maybe some of my work is not artistic,” Cross said in an interview, “but it is historical.” (6)
In 1951, at age eighty-eight, Cross committed suicide using a tool he handled as adroitly as his paintbrush—his twelve-gauge shotgun.
1 The Land of the Crooked Tree, by U.P. Hedrick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948).
3 Encyclopedia Smithsonian (http://www.si.edu/encyclopedia_si/nmnh/passpig.htm).
4 “Brush with the past: Eccentric artist preserved now-extinct pigeons on canvas,” by Lisa Medendorp (Muskegon Chronicle, Oct. 14, 2010).
5 A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, by Joel Greenberg (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
Information about the restoration of the Cross self-portrait by west Michigan restoration experts Miller Fenwood can be found on the company’s website: https://millerfenwood.com/2020/01/30/lewis-cross-self-portrait/ .
Additional biographical information from: “Surveying American Art,” Grand Rapids Art Museum (http://www.artmuseumgr.org/uploads/assets/SURVEY_1.pdf)